FOCUS: THE FUTURE OF THE BBC: Do we want populism or just a public service?

A solution of mutual benefit
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Once again the argument is raging over how much money the BBC should get and how it should be accountable. Whatever the settlement figure, though, the fundamental point will again be overlooked. The BBC is going to be handed a fortune and let off the hook of direct and proper accountability to the people who pay for it.

The traditional solution is to privatise the BBC, to sell it to shareholders, and relieve the public of the onus of the bill. But this proposal misses the point that many people rather like the idea of civilising public broadcasting and are not unhappy to pay for it.

A much simpler solution has been overlooked. This would be not to privatise the BBC but to mutualise it - to turn the British Broadcasting Corporation into the British Broadcasting Co-operative. It is rare that a public policy "magic bullet" presents itself but this is one of them. The key acknowledgement is that the BBC should be owned by the British people. The simplest way to achieve this is to convert licence fee receipts into membership certificates. This done, everything falls into place.

In this way the BBC gets more independent, not less, as the Government is removed from the process of appointing governors. The licence fee is abolished, hence removed from the political arena, and public broadcasting continues into the digital future.

How much is the annual subscription? Let the owners decide. Concessions for pensioners, the blind, UB40s? Ditto. Who directs affairs? Just as the owners of mutual societies elect directors, so would the new owners of the BBC. What would be the scope of the mutual BBC? Five channels or 50? Let the viewers and listeners - the owners - decide.

The BBC, by demanding a perpetuation of the licence scheme, reveals that it does not really wish to be independent at all. This is because by accepting a licence fee, it accepts that it is going to be up to the Government to decide the shape of public broadcasting. This is a decision that will be made in Whitehall. Reality check: the licence fee does not liberate the BBC; it captivates it.

Successive governments are happy to maintain the system since it ensures that the BBC is kept firmly under the thumb, its governors ever a collection of nonentities chaired by a senior government appointee.

Now we are to have phoney consultation on the Davies report that will be dominated by the professional spin practitioners, most of them on the payroll of the BBC, with cameo appearances by fat ladies in twin sets who claim to represent the interests of viewers and listeners. Sadly, the magic bullet will remain unfired. It will be business as usual. We will be paying a higher licence fee to a service that is too self-interested, bureaucratic and unimaginative to grasp an alternative future. The BBC will rush headlong into the digital millennium with a constitution conceived in the days when a net was what you took fishing and digits were your fingers.